TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton has more convincing to do if he wants Tupelo’s city council to approve two new city positions for an in-house legal team.
Along with skepticism toward hiring a city attorney and support staff, council members had many questions Wednesday during its first budget meeting. The main focus was Shelton’s idea of using a single attorney instead of contracting with an entire law firm.
Council members had concerns about rising personnel costs, when a job description could be available, how a single attorney could handle the workload and assurance that the attorney wouldn’t show bias toward the mayor.
“I know you’re an attorney and you’ve got this tunnel vision, but you’ve got to sell Mike Bryan on it,” Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan told the mayor during the meeting. “I’m afraid this could hinder or slow down progress.”
Shelton proposed the in-house city attorney as a way to save money and transition away from a contract with a law firm handling the city’s legal affairs.
At times, exchanges between council members and the mayor seemed a little testy. The firm Mitchell McNutt & Sams has represented the city for 36 of the last 40 years. City records show annual spending on legal fees with the law firm ranges from about $300,000 to $400,000, not including legal expenses related to Tupelo’s annexation court battle that ended last year.
Shelton, an attorney, plans to have the new attorney make $90,000 annually. He also wants to add a paralegal/secretary, which likely could be filled by an existing employee.
“My only concern is when you start adding personnel costs, it just sort of grows,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “Is that the best thing to do for the city?”
Shelton said many duties handled by the law firm could be handled by a single attorney. However, if there is more work than one person can handle, Shelton said the city could continue working with an outside law firm.
“As I stated twice already, I intend to have an outside counsel for any overflow or outside counsel needed,” Shelton said.
The mayor also said city prosecutor Richard Babb would assist with overflow work.
City Council members, Shelton and city department heads will meet at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to continue discussing the budget, required by state law to be approved by Sept. 15.